An Ass Out of You and Me
I had shucked off my work image by slipping into my threadbare jeans with the once-fashionable tears in them and pulled my favorite dark green sweatshirt over my head. I stepped into my gardening tennis shoes, frowning because I could see that they needed to be tossed in the washer. I grabbed my comfortable brown jacket and went out the door.
It was a blustery February afternoon. The air was crisper than the iceberg lettuce leaves that I had laid on top of the sweet onion, ripe tomato, and a slice of honey-baked ham that was between two slices of homemade bread, in my brown paper lunch sack. I wasn’t about to let chilly weather keep me from visiting North Side Park. My professional life was hectic, and my Sunday visits to the park always centered me and prepared me to take on Mondays at Bradly Publishing House, where everything was done at a dead-run.
I took the path that wound around the large fountain in the heart of the park, and once I passed the statue of the town founder, I headed for my park bench. It wasn’t that I owned the bench with its chipped green paint and broken armrest; it was that I’d sat on it more than any other human being – so I considered myself an entitled benchsteader. That bench was where I could watch kids playing football on the field to the left, and lovers tossing coins in the fountain in front of me. I could also hear the music from a nearby practicing orchestra while the pigeons begged for my bread crust. It was my healing bench.
I was just a few steps away from the bench when I stopped and frowned. There was a bum in my spot; a homeless beggar on my bench. He had his balding head tipped back and he was snoring loud enough to drown out the music that was floating in the air. I hated that the city didn’t do anything to keep the indigents out of the city park. It was Sunday, this bench was mine, and he had to go and sleep on the sidewalk elsewhere.
I walked up close and stared at him. I wondered how long it had been since he had a bath and a shave. I imagined vermin crawling through his tattered clothing. His presence was unacceptable. I coughed to get his attention. It worked; he opened one eye and frowned at me. In a raspy voice, he said, “It’s a big bench. Just don’t sit too close.”
I fidgeted on my feet, and said, “Are you hungry?”
He responded, “I was born hungry, but I’m not buying you lunch.”
I cocked my head to the right as I processed what he’d just said. I stiffened my spine and snapped, “I didn’t ask you to.”
He raised his head, leveled his dark eyes on me, and said, “I don’t mind helping those of you who are down on their luck, but can’t you see that this is my nap time? Ask someone else.”
I glanced down at my torn jeans, and I realized that this bum that was sacked out on my bench, thought that I was a beggar. “Sir, I was thinking that I could buy you lunch.”
He sat up straighter, looked me up and down, and said, “How much did you steal?”
This was getting out of hand. All I wanted was to sit on my bench, enjoy the music, and share my sandwich with the pigeons. I didn’t think that I should have to explain myself, and frankly, I was offended by the vagrant’s assumptions. Still, I didn’t want to just spend my time staring at him and burning daylight, so I took a deep breath and said, “Sir, you are mistaken. I’m a senior editor at Bradly Publishing, and if you’d kindly get yourself off of my bench, I’ll give you enough money to get a room, bath, and meal.”
I was taken aback when he broke apart in laughter. He laughed until a tear slipped from the corner of his eye. He said, “This is royally funny. You expect me to believe that line of cock and bull you just spit out?”
Anger raced through my veins. “Not that it’s any business of yours, but I’m Marion Shafer, the senior editor at Bradly publishing. Bradly is behind a long list of bestsellers, including, Escaping Myself, by Sara Dukes, Trails, Parks and Waterways, by Noah Singer, and My Last Dime, by Frank Norrison.”
He startled me when he broke into laughter again. I watched him struggle to catch his breath, and I was done. I fully intended to contact City Hall and look into a way to keep the homeless out of the park and off of my bench. I turned my back on him and marched up to the side of the fountain. I stared into the falling water and tried to let my anger go. I flinched when I felt a hand on my arm. My eyes followed the hand, up the arm, and to the face. Before I could spell it all out in plain language, the bum held out his hand, and said, “I’m Noah Singer. I think we’ve got a plethora of bad assumptions between us. You know what they say in the writing world. To assume is to make an ass out of u and me.”
My jaw dropped open, and I know my face was the color of a too-ripe tomato as I put my hand in his. “Mr. Singer, I don’t know what to say. I’m so embarrassed.”
He smiled, and said, “Likewise, my dear. How about we start over?”
I nodded. “Thank you, I’d like that.”
We walked back over to the bench, and he said, “You seem pretty possessive of this bench. If you would be agreeable to sharing it with me, you can lay claim to your favorite end.”
I stumbled through an explanation about why the bench mattered to me, and he smiled and said, “You’re right. This is the perfect spot to level out the bumps in the week. I’ve been sitting here dozing while listening to some of Beethoven’s most beautiful pieces. I love that the concert hall is so close.”
I reached into my lunch sack and pulled out my sandwich. “Will you share my sandwich with me?”
I giggled, when he said, “You know, my stomach was just about to meet my spine. I just feared that if I went and bought myself some lunch, I’d lose my bench to another music lover who wanted to sit on it to unwind. I’d love to lunch with you.”
We spent several hours talking about the travels that he’d written about in his book. He told me how he often visited city parks when he was in a new area. He said that he was in town to sign papers at Bradly on Monday morning for a new book about some of the interesting people that he’d met along the way.
We lost track of the hours. When we noted that the sun was dropping low on the horizon, I stood and offered one more apology. “I have learned something today. I think that in the future I will be less quick to judge people; to make assumptions. I teasingly added, “Please don’t add me to the list of people you’ve met along the way in your new book.”
He winked, and said, “I think we’ve both learned that you just can’t judge a book by its cover. I’ll see you on Monday.”